The Accused, Women’s Libidos, and Rape Culture

It’s quiz time at MovieFanFare. Study the picture below carefully:


Now, your question:

At what stage does the woman depicted here lose her right to say “no” to sexual intercourse? Is it at stage (1), when she enters a bar dressed in a “provocative” manner? Or is it at stage (2), after she has had a few drinks and returns a man’s flirtatious leer with a smile of her own? Does she forfeit her choice to refuse sex at stage (3), when she dances to a song on the jukebox, her sensual movements causing loose clothing to fall away and reveal more of her body?

Or, is one man (or more) only entitled to physically subdue her at the stage when a kiss is exchanged?

Pencils down. That didn’t take very long…did it?

In the highly unlikely event you had trouble with that quiz in the least, you would clearly be less (shocked, surprised, bothered, offended) by the re-emergence of rape and women’s reproductive rights as persistent topics of cultural “controversy” than I am. What was surprising to me about revisiting director Jonathan Kaplan’s 1988 message-drama The Accused, in the wake of these high-profile conversations, was how much I felt the film was designed to play—in 1988, at least—as a morality play of some troubling complexity.

Who looks at this movie today and has difficulty figuring out whether or not Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster, in an Oscar-winning performance) maintains the right to possess exclusive control over her body at all times? On this repeat viewing, I found many fascinating parallels to Dead Man Walking, a “capital punishment” picture released seven years later. In both films, we’re pushed to reconsider a moral issue the filmmakers believe we might be thinking about in a simplistic way.

In Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins’ superlative drama based on the book written by Catholic nun Helen Prejean, the moral force behind instituting the death penalty is successfully made cloudy—to me, anyway—by the film’s careful, and yet very passionate, treatment of all the players involved as fully three-dimensional characters. Prejean, the families of killer Matthew Poncelet’s victims, the guards who carry out their duties in the death chamber, even Poncelet—are shown to be capable of love, hate, despair, blind rage, and moral uncertainty. That film has maintained its power to challenge, if for no other reason than the issue it focuses on remains an unresolved conflict in our society at large.

The Accused, a film of no less passion when it comes to exploring the issue of rape—and, like the Robbins film, based on a true story—seems more dated to me today, while still being very worthwhile viewing thanks to a canny script and some very dedicated acting from the lead players. It’s particularly striking, in the first few minutes of the film, how much it seems Foster’s character is violated over and over again after surviving a brutal gang rape (the details of which are held for us until the last third of the film), when she is interrogated and examined for evidence in the hospital—and that her “violators,” however well-intentioned, are all women.

Equally of note is the fact that the most damning of challenges to Foster’s character are made by her own advocate, played by Kelly McGillis (herself a real-life survivor of rape)—by way of the many conversations between them meant to prepare Foster for the beating she is sure to take on the witness stand.


Have you ever made love to more than one man at a time? It’s the kind of question you’re going to be asked on the stand. You’re also going to be asked…if any other man has ever hit you and if you liked it. You’re going to be asked about your drug bust and how many drinks a day you have to ‘smooth out the edges,’ and how many joints. And how often you go to bars alone and whether or not you wear underwear when you go to them and which diseases you’ve caught and how many abortions you’ve had, and I will object to all of those questions. And sometimes the judge will sustain me, and sometimes not.

And sometimes not.

Let’s add some more “stages” to our quiz and repeat the question:

When does a woman abdicate her authority of consent?

When she drinks? When she smokes a joint? When she goes to a bar not wearing underwear? After she has slept with more than one man at a time? After she’s caught a venereal disease? After she’s had an abortion?

Does this new round of questions seem any harder to answer back, and answer back with clarity? I’m a fully-functioning man, which is to say I come to the human race possessed of the same animal nature as every other member of the team; like you no doubt, I am also grown-up enough to recognize that upbringing and cultural biases inform those more primitive aspects of the human personality. Ideally, succeeding generations are more enlightened and, as that well-worn saw goes, the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, as each new generation of young people is taught more—and is taught better.

It’s disheartening to see that arc twisted backwards—but when a decidedly all-masculine panel of medical and religious “authorities” is convened to adjudicate issues of women’s healthcare; when elected officials believe, even for a moment, that “legitimate” rape can be either defined by marriage status or used to concoct biologically-incorrect excuses to infringe upon reproductive liberties; when female sexual licentiousness is associated with the use of contraceptives (and a ridiculous misapprehension of how they work); when the “female libido,” and a woman’s power and obligation to “control” it, becomes the prima facie solution to unwanted pregnancies? Well, those are times that are getting darker, rather than more enlightened.

When you look at the crowd of men in the shadowy game room of the Mill Bar, cheering hold her down, make her moan, smell that new blood—you see authentic portrayals of “rape culture” in action. That term might have been coined in the 1970s, but you only need to look around some popular social networking sites in the most cursory fashion to see it much in discussion today among the women who perceive it enjoying some manner of sad revival.

Or maybe it never really went away. Maybe The Accused isn’t as dated as I imagine. Maybe when the excruciating rape scene begins to unfold in the film, as Jodie Foster’s character enters the bar wearing a leather jacket, smoking a cigarette, and narrowing her eyes slightly, some viewers might still meet that shot with the kind of slimy judgment it may have more easily inspired in the ‘80s: Damn, she’s a real slut. Was she just ‘asking for it’? She’s dancing like a stripper. No wonder. Got what she deserved, I guess. Hard to tell who’s really at fault here, isn’t it?

Let’s not forget, too, the flurry of enthusiasm recently displayed by some heads of state for enacting laws designed to mandate medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds. Among some, penetration by force of law is all the rage.

Why can’t she just control herself?

Why, indeed.



  • ganderson

    George – I always enjoy your articles, but I don’t get this one. You ask “when does a woman abdicate her authority of consent?” Never. Period. If she doesn’t consent, she doesn’t consent. It’s helpful to think of it in this context: “when does a man abdicate his authority of consent.” (And I’m not addressing the Q of punishment for crime, which is a different issue altogether – a person abdicates that right to consent upon commission of the crime.)

    • GeorgeDAllen

      Seems to me you get my point just fine–it might be that folks who find the question (appropriately) absurd, and have the same (correct) answer (never, period) have a difficult time imagining that response being anything other than self-evident.

      My only “point,” I’d say, other than the one you just made, is to associate the manner in which a woman’s autonomy over her own body remains not so clear-cut a question for some people today with the ways in which “The Accused” presents the idea that characters in the story find it a challenge, strangely, to determine for themselves and others whether or not Foster’s character is somehow culpable for the crime committed against her.

      To put it as succinctly as you did — she’s not, full stop. Not everyone in the movie feels the same way. And that attitude manifests itself today in some disturbing ways not always directly related to the crime of rape.

      • ganderson

        Maybe here’s a way to think about it, including Movie Fan’s comment as well. I think there’s a big distinction between what’s smart (‘wise’ might be a better word) and what’s moral and ethical. When Sarah Tobias behaved as she did, entering a seedy bar, filled with rough men and wearing skimpy clothes and a ‘damn what a slut’ demeanor, most objective people might agree it was not a wise thing to do.
        We might argue that a woman ought to have a right to do such and not have to pay for it by being raped. However, a realist might say, somehow, she deserved it by not being ‘wise’. Well, I suppose we all do things that aren’t wise and maybe we all deserve what we get.
        The difference between wisdom and ethical behavior is that ethics focuses on the behavior and attitude of the perp, not the victim. Whether your morals and ethics come from intellect, society or faith, the defining characteristic of immoral or unethical behavior almost always comes down to this – the unethical person, the rapist in this case, thinks that ‘I’m more important than anyone else and nobody matters but me.’ It’s an attitude that ‘covereth a multitude of sins.’ The moral person, on the other hand, treats others with respect and empathy and supports their rights to self-determination, even when they are acting unwisely.
        Is rape a special case? Is there anything more demeaning, disrespectful and non-empathetic than saying ‘you don’t have the right to control your own body, including the most intimate aspects of it?’ If you take your ethical code from the cinema, name this quote: “It’s a helluva thing, killing a man.Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”
        Boils down, I guess, to this – I don’t have the ability to understand the concept: ‘rape culture.’ Maybe I’m just not a realist.

        • Wayne P.

          Youre a realist, but youre also a literalist. In other words, there are truly absolute standards of moral decency, ethical behavior; and, in short, right or wrong in the real world, regardless of time or place! As someone, most likely wise, once said: you can choose your choices in life but you cant choose your own consequences to learn from for acting them out.

          • GeorgeDAllen

            Interesting. I would suggest that, as comforting as the notion of
            moral absolutes might be, if there’s one thing history has
            profoundly demonstrated to the attentive observer, it’s that outside
            of the abstract, morality is situational and ever-evolving—and that
            ever-shifting “absolutes” are now and will continue to be an
            indispensable (and, on balance, desirable) characteristic of the
            human condition.

          • Wayne P.

            Well, relative morality is a lot like relative truth…if its situational, then how do we know what to do and/or not to do in a given circumstance? Thats why I put it in terms of right or wrong regarding behavior…where our instincts and conscience are there to guide us as in the better angels of our nature referenced by no less than Lincoln (just to keep it secular ;)!

        • GeorgeDAllen

          I could picture a realist suggesting that the result of Sarah’s actions might have been more predictable than in it might have been in other situations–in other words making a guess about facts–but I’m not sure a realist would be arguing the case for whether or not she deserved it. That would be a moral argument; and to me, a very distasteful one.

          Your quote, by the way, is of course from “Unforgiven.” A great line from a great movie. I can’t recall a time since its multiple wins that I was so emotionally invested in an Oscar night, seeing Clint get that kind of long-overdue admiration.

  • Movie Fan

    You can’t expect rational behavior from irrational people. I think the point of this movie was that actions have consequences, but we aren’t prepared – individually, socially or legally – to deal with them. Play with fire or control it. Either way, it’s still fire.